By Léo Azambuja
Every year, from September through April, more than 10,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific swim nearly 3,000 miles to warm Hawaiian waters. The whales spend several weeks in Hawai‘i, mating, giving birth and nursing.
It’s one of the greatest shows on Earth, with whales measuring as long as 50-feet and weighing as much as 45 tons leaping out of the water, slapping tails and pectoral fins, bobbing their heads, shoving each other and swimming with newborn calves.
But to ancient Hawaiians, the koholā, or whales, were much more than a display of one of Mother Nature’s finest shows — they were part of their culture and religion, they were cited in chants and were even credited with helping in the creation of men and women. They also played a role in the unification of the islands.
“There’s a very intimate relationship between Hawaiian people and the coastline resources and everything beyond,” said Kamealoha Smith, a kumu ‘ike Hawai‘i, or teacher of basic Hawaiian knowledge, and the director of the Kaiāulu Anahola Traditional Ecological Knowledge Program.
Today, koholā is used to describe humpback whales, and palaoa is used for sperm whales. But in old Hawai‘i, koholā and palaoa both meant whales, and were used interchangeably.
Kalasara Setaysha, vice chair of the nonprofit Koholā Leo, or voice of the whale, said whales were considered messengers of the god Kanaloa, one of the four main deities in ancient Hawai‘i.
An old Hawaiian tale, Makuaʻs Prayer, tells the story of Makua, a kahuna who prayed to Kanaloa and Kāne, another main Hawaiian god, asking them to teach his son to become a kahuna. One day, Makua offered dinner to two travelling strangers, who revealed themselves as the gods and said they would send a messenger to take the kahuna’s son. Sometime later, Makua’s son disappeared into the ocean while playing on the back of a whale. Grieving the apparent loss of his son, the kahuna was visited in his dreams by Kanaloa and Kāne, who assured him his prayers had been answered. Later, the son returned home as a wise kahuna.
On Kaua‘i, there’s a 3,436-foot-tall peak named Kapalaoa, or The Whale, west of Kilohana Crater and above Kahili Peak. In a story similar to Makua’s Prayer, Kanaloa and Kāne sent a whale to Kapalaoa to fetch Makuakaumana, who was then taken to the floating land of Kānehūnāmoku — Kāne’s hidden land — to live with the gods.
Kaua‘i also has a stunning waterfall called Koholālele, or leaping whale, near the Hindu Monastery in Wailua. Though the falls is listed as Kaholālele, the book Place Names of Hawai‘i, by Pukui, Elbert and Mookini, identifies the falls as Koholālele. Several other locations throughout the state are also named after whales.
There is no evidence or records that early Hawaiians hunted or ate whales, perhaps indicating whales may have been regarded as ʻaumākua, an ancestor who took the form of an animal. The ‘aumākua delivered guidance through dreams, connecting physical and spiritual worlds.
In the Kumulipo, a 2,102-line Hawaiian creation chant, the palaoa appears early, in the second of 16 wa, or time of creation.
“Hanau ka palaoa noho i kai (Born is the whale living in the sea); Kia‘i ia e ka ‘aoa noho i uka (Guarded by the sandalwood living on land),” the Kumulipo reads on lines 251 and 252.
There are many interpretations to the long and complex Kumulipo, and some cultural practitioners say whales played a special role in creation; they helped usher a time when light came into the world and they also helped to chant man and woman into being.
In the event a sperm whale washed ashore, it belonged to the ali‘i, or chief. The whale’s tooth was carved and used as a centerpiece for lei niho palaoa, a necklace that reflected noble birth or status, was worn by the ali‘i in battles and special occasions, and was supposedly a vessel for mana, or celestial power.
In 1790, Kamehameha sought the advice of Kapoukahi, a kahuna from Kaua‘i trained in the class of hulihonua, who had complex knowledge of the Earthʻs configuration and rock placement. Kapoukahi told Kamehameha to rebuild an ancient heiau atop Puʻukoholā (literally Whale Hill), in Kawaihae, Big Island, and dedicate it to war god Kūkaʻilimoku, which would help Kamehameha conquer all the islands.
It took Kamehameha less than a year to finish the massive temple — 224 feet by 100 feet — built with rocks from as far as 14 miles away. Almost every man in Kawaihae took part in the construction, including Kamehameha himself. But it paid off. In 1791, he took control over the entire Big Island after killing his cousin, Keoua Kuahu‘ula. Four years later, Kamehameha conquered Maui, Molokai and O‘ahu. In 1810, Kapoukahi’s prophecy was completed when Kaua‘i King Kaumuali‘i agreed to become a vassal king to Kamehameha, thus avoiding a bloody war.
Today, Pu‘ukoholā Heiau, with much of it still intact, is part of the National Park Service. Its fronting waters, along with 14,000 square miles of ocean spread throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands, are part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary created by Congress in 1992 and accepted by the State of Hawai‘i in 1997.
Humpback whales are all around the globe, and their numbers have been rebounding from extinction threats since international whaling bans in the mid-1960s. Their current global population is estimated at 45,000 to 60,000.
The North Pacific population has more than 21,000 whales. During winter, more than half of them come to Hawai‘i, with the remaining whales migrating to Southern Japan, Mexico and Costa Rica. Humpbacks migrating to Hawai‘i come in different times throughout the season, which can go from as early as late September through mid-May.
Jean Souza, Kaua‘i Island coordinator for the HIHWNMS, said the peak of the whale season is January through March. The younger whales, she said, usually come early in the season, and pregnant and mature whales usually come later.
Their travel to Hawai‘i lasts four to six weeks, according to Souza. Some whales stay here only two weeks, Souza said. Nursing mothers may stay six weeks, and mature males are known to spend up to three months.
By mid-May, most whales will have left Hawaiʻi. In late September or early October, the first early birds — their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means large-winged New Englander — will be arriving back here.
Setaysha said humpback whales are highly emotional, compassionate beings, and will mourn the death of loved ones and save other species’ lives. They are also intelligent, problem solvers and self-aware animals. They even have names, “we call them signature whistles,” she said.
Through education, public outreach and advocacy, Koholā Leo works to protect whales and their habitat. Entanglements with commercial fishing nets from beyond Hawaiʻi and collisions with whale-watching tour boats, especially near Maui, are the main threats, according to Setaysha.
And then there is a relatively high mortality rate for newborns, 20 percent, due to predators, boat collisions and a long migration a few weeks after birth.
“When you figure in their first year, what they go through … itʻs not easy being a humpback whale calf,” Souza said.
Plastic can also harm whales and many other marine species.
“We just need to be more conscious to how we are living and how our actions impact the environment as a whole, because everything we do here ends up in the ocean,” Setaysha said.
Visit hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov and whalevoice.org for more information.